NEW YORK - During his speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump made his disdain for the nuclear agreement with Iran absolutely clear.
"The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into," Trump said. "Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don't think you've heard the last of it, believe me."
On the sidelines of the UNGA, some prominent critics of the Iran nuclear deal endorsed his position Tuesday, debating how best to move forward to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear weapons state, while underscoring concerns about Tehran's links with North Korea.
Participants in the United Against Nuclear Iran conference (UANI) agreed they see flaws in the 2015 deal, which offered incentives to Iran in return for guarantees that it would not develop nuclear weapons. But speakers disagreed on whether the United States should attempt to renegotiate and expand the deal negotiated under former President Barack Obama, or scrap it altogether.
Imperfect, yet valuable
Former U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States and other experts, Iran is largely complying with the nuclear deal. "It's not perfect, but I think we should retain that," he said.
Richardson, also a former member of Congress and governor of Arizona, is well-known for his role as a U.S. diplomatic envoy on missions to North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries during the 1990s — assignments that earned him three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. He cited the current threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile activity in his comments about the Iran agreement.
"We can't afford to have a nuclear Iran and a nuclear North Korea. Both of them, by the way, are working together," Richardson said. "So, I think it's important that we dramatically increase our commitment to get Iran to be more responsive on issues like terrorism. It's going to be hard."
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the brother and son of two former U.S. presidents, agreed it was probably best to use the 2015 deal for leverage over Iran, but to enforce it more rigorously.
"These technical defaults are serious. The idea that you call something technical when it's a violation of the agreement — there needs to be consequences," Bush told the UANI conference. "So I don't know what kind of leverage we would necessarily have if we get out of the agreement right now."
Critical of Obama
Bush, a former presidential candidate himself until Trump secured the Republican Party's nomination last year, criticized Obama's handling of the nuclear deal with Iran, and said Trump found himself in a tough position when he took over the White House this year.
"He was left a really difficult circumstance, because all of the benefits are front-loaded for Iran and all the possible benefits for the rest of the world, the United States, are theoretically at the end, maybe," Bush said. "And so, getting out of this agreement, we lose some of our leverage."
The U.S. is set to decide in October whether to recertify Iran's compliance with the deal, which was signed by the U.S., the European Union, China and Russia. The pact is known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If the United States fails to recertify Iran next month, another question would arise: whether Washington should withdraw from the agreement altogether.
Supporters of the JCPOA argue that the 2015 deal was the best possible arrangement that the world powers could get Tehran to agree to, in order to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Many fear pulling out of the agreement would lead to Iran's quick development of nuclear weapons, and most likely result in a military conflict, with unpredictable consequences.
Another former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, disagreed.
If Trump does not recertify Iran's compliance by mid-October, Bolton said, "the president has a subsequent decision [about] whether to pull out of the deal entirely. I think he should. I think we should abrogate the deal."
"I think the argument that you don't certify, but stay in, is a kind of one-shoe-on, one-shoe-off foreign policy," Bolton continued. "It may suit a 5-year-old; it doesn't suit the United States."
Bolton, widely viewed as a foreign policy hawk, said the Iranian deal was too similar to failed deals with North Korea, and the evidence of past nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran did not bode well.
The UANI conference took place near the United Nations, where Trump lambasted the two "rogue states" in his first speech before the General Assembly.
Trump called the Iranian government a "corrupt dictatorship" whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos, and he blasted North Korea as a "depraved regime" responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of its people as well as imprisonment, torture, killings and kidnappings.
"If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life," said Trump, who threatened to "totally destroy North Korea" if the U.S. or its allies were forced to defend themselves.